I think every one of us has a particular favourite period of history. Some may like the WWII period, some may like the Suffragette movement; I, for some unknown reason, love anything related to the Tudors. And the prospect of reading a story where we travel with the future Queen Elizabeth I to Constantinople attracted me like a moth to a flame. Although complete fiction, not much is written about Elizabeth’s younger life, and so The Tournament had loads going for it. I had heard quite a lot of the ever increasing in popularity Matthew Reilly and so I was intrigued to see where he would go with this.
Sultan Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire and leader of the Moslem lands has invited the world’s best chess players to a tournament to be held in his capital. With disease spreading across England, Roger Ascham thinks it best to take the young princess, Elizabeth with him to Constantinople to watch the tournament so she can learn more about the world as well as escaping the possibility of the plague. Although murder and sinister shadows are at work in this foreign land, and before long a visiting Cardinal is brutally murdered. Thankfully, Roger Ascham is assigned to the case and with Elizabeth in tow, she will have to adapt to the harsh world outside her kingdom.
In all intents and purposes, The Tournament is a medieval murder mystery at its core, but with a plethora of more important themes hidden within. Told from the perspective of the young princess, I think this story works extremely well. I really liked how the innocent young girl changes before our eyes to question, to analyse and to think outside the box. She may leave England naive and sheltered by her royal status, but she most certainly reenters her realm a new woman. We are shocked as Elizabeth is shocked. We learn where Elizabeth learns, and we root for her to succeed too, to stand up for herself and turn into the strong woman we all know she eventually becomes during her reign. This may be an adult book, but its young telling is wonderfully crafted with exceptional realism and genuine honesty.
And yes it is a murder mystery, but I think the real charm in this story is the characters. Roger Ascham is a brilliant character; charmingly British in his makeup, but witty, intelligent and fun to read. As the reader, we see how his mind works through his dialogue – a real talent of the author I think. Many will undoubtedly compare Ascham to Sherlock Holmes, but while I found myself somewhat detattached with Holmes’s outdated manner, I found Roger Ascham a real gem. His teaching of Elizabeth is brilliant – and I think the author has done a marvelous job at giving us a way, albeit a fictitious way, of seeing where some of Elizabeth’s traits and mannerisms may have come from. I secretly wished that Ascham could have been my teacher.
There are many lessons to be learned along the way; mainly sex and how it can be used in various political situations, which usually have dire consequences. The character of Elsie is perhaps its biggest example. Taken along for the ride by Elizabeth herself, Elsie soon becomes entranced by the exotic way of life in these Moslem lands. She thinks in order for her to elevate herself in the eyes of the Crown Prince, she must ‘snare’ both him and his friends. This openess to discuss sex and sexual gratification, although graphic at times, is also another way of the author trying to possibly explain Elizabeth’s personal choices to never marry and be celibate. It is an extremely interesting story and concept, one I found believable and very true of the situation the girls find themselves in.
It must be said though that this is not erotica; all the sexual scenes serve as lessons later in the book. Yet, despite being set in the 15oo’s, Matthew Reilly has tried to add modern elements to his story. Namely the sex and pedophilia scandals associated with the Catholic priests. Young boys being used for sexual favours is an unpleasant read at times, but ultimately it forms part of the story and therefore in necessary for its development. It is quite an ingenious way of interconnecting things that may otherwise be unrelated. Again, I think the author has structured this book and its developments in a rather smart way.
Another nice touch I thought that elevated this story was the way in which modern and current issues of today are discussed in a period in history that really would have issues (and did have issues) with. Namely, the role of women in society as well as gay themes too. Of course, Elizabeth grew up never really in line for the throne, but became Queen nonetheless and reigned in what historians called the Golden Age of English history. A woman no less. Some may say that these issues were irrelevant in this time period the book is set in, but I disagree immensely.
As a result though, the murders that happen in this story, and ultimately the chess tournament that serves as the setting, seems to sift into the background somewhat. It was a little easy to guess how everything was connected and who was responsible for the killings. But saying that, this isn’t simply just a murder story.
A lot of people may have been surprised by the Australian author’s step in a direction other than action-thriller, but I have to say that this has been an enjoyable read. It can be read on so many different levels. I do think that you have to have a strong resolve and mind to read this, but the acts within are done with professionalism. The Tournament is a successful story of ‘what if’ in the early life of Queen Elizabeth I on how she became the monarch that made history. I would much rather read this than any Sherlock Holmes novel, mainly due to the deep themes and intelligent discussions within. And for both Elizabeth and Roger Ascham who are a wonderful duo. They make a great partnership – one I would like to read more of, but probably never will.
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